Robert Burns’ ‘Rights of Women’ finally get some attention in Commons – Christine Jardine

Robert Burns. Love his work, as most do, or loathe it, as somebody somewhere probably does, you cannot deny he did have a knack of identifying issues in the 18th century which still resonate today, writes Christine Jardine.

After Thomas Paine wrote Rights of Man, Robert Burns penned The Rights of Women (Picture: John Devlin)
After Thomas Paine wrote Rights of Man, Robert Burns penned The Rights of Women (Picture: John Devlin)

And I have no doubt that at suppers all over the country this week some of them were high on the agenda of the speakers as they tucked into the great chieftain of the puddin’ race.

Take women for example. Particularly the rights of women.

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Just a year after Thomas Paine’s iconic political pamphlet Rights of Man – credited with provoking so much change – Burns penned “The Rights of Women”:

“While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,

The fate of Empires and the fall of Kings;

While quacks of State must each produce his plan,

And even children lisp the Rights of Man;

Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,

The Rights of Woman merit some attention.”

His words were right then and sadly, they are still relevant today.

It’s now the 21st century and Europe’s eye, particularly our parliament’s, is fixed on that mighty issue of Brexit, while we wait on a particular leader to produce her plan.

And yet in the House of Commons tonight we will vote on an issue central to ensure our system works equally well for women and for men.

I chose those words quite precisely and think they bear repeating: a system which works equally well for women and for men.

I would not argue for a moment that women are not now equal before the law, but 100 years after the first women in this country were given the right to vote, and then to become Members of Parliament, there are still some issues to address.

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Proxy voting aims to fix one of them. It’s more than a year since Labour MP Harriet Harman first raised the issue of women MPs who were denied the right to vote on important legislative issues because they were on maternity leave. New dads too surely deserved the same right as parents in every other area of employment in the country to spend time with their newborn.

And, while we are at it, what about those suffering from a serious illness or perhaps nursing a dying partner?

Until now the 18th century practice of pairing – matching someone who had to be absent with someone voting the other way to ensure no side gained advantage through illness – had prevailed.

But that all came crashing down when the Tory MP who had been paired with Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson for a vital Brexit vote on the Trade Bill decided to go ahead and vote.

Anyone who knows the former Equalities Minister who was on maternity leave at the time would have warned him against messing with her. Especially on a gender issue.

Matters were made worse when my colleague Tulip Siddiq MP so distrusted the ancient system that she felt compelled to delay the birth of her child to vote on the EU Withdrawal Bill.

Under medical advice to have a c-section she came to the chamber in a wheelchair.

The feeling of anger was palpable.

No-one should have had to make that choice. The health of themselves, and their unborn child, or representing their constituents.

Enter Jo Swinson MP, newly returned from parental leave and incensed that an issue the House had agreed to address before she left had still not been fixed.

Ms Swinson was, it has to be said, not the only MP to voice their concern, but she did put the government on the spot in the House and she got a positive response.

And tonight we will vote on whether proxy voting will become the new norm for MPs on parental leave.

That might seem like a small thing, but then wee steps lead to huge advances.

We all have examples of that in our own lives, even in our experience of Burns, and the traditions around his suppers.

I remember when the ‘lassies’ were not allowed to take part, except that is for the one lassie who was replying to the toast. And that ‘Toast to the lassies’ was originally a slightly patronising nod to the women who were expected to serve the haggis, neeps and tatties before retiring from the celebrations.

And we are not talking that long ago.

As a student I worked behind the bar at my local golf club. Every January the men assembled for the Burns supper, we served up the drink and the food and then went off into another room until it was time to clear up.

Now of course I am regularly a guest and often a speaker at Burns events. Next weekend I’ll be giving the Immortal Memory at a supper in the Highlands. I like to think Burns would have approved.

I also suspect he might have enjoyed that the originally exclusively male House of Commons – which is still struggling for gender balance – is being held to account by the lassies, and that the rights of women are getting some attention. At last.